Owens Institute celebrates a half-century of collaborative research
Back in 1970, bringing researchers from different disciplines together to address problems was a novel concept in academia.
Owens took over UGA’s former Social Science Research Institute in 1970 as it was renamed the Institute for Behavioral Research. With his reputation as an interdisciplinary thinker in the field of applied psychology and his likeable personality, Owens was the right person at the right time.
The reimagined institute’s primary purpose was “to provide the University of Georgia with a distinctive and distinguished interdisciplinary thrust in the behavioral sciences.” The stated benefit would be “to increase the university’s visibility in the behavioral sciences, and thereby to enhance its appeal to students, faculty and granting agencies.”
The institute was named for Owens at its 40th anniversary after his wife, Barbara, donated $1 million to create its endowment.
“A lot of universities paid lip service to interdisciplinary research, but this wasn’t much of a reality [at most universities]. So the institute and Bill’s vision was groundbreaking and one that he realized,” said Abraham Tesser, who served as the institute’s second director.
As a researcher during World War II—working for the Bureau of Naval Personnel in test construction and personnel psychology—Owens learned in a military context that breaking down disciplinary boundaries was a better approach to solving broad problems. It helped to energize cohesion.
“We kind of take it as a given now that, to answer big problems in society, you have to approach it from lots of different perspectives,” said Eby. “Bill was talking about these things before everyone else. He was a pioneer of really thinking about problems from very different and complementary disciplinary perspectives.”
Owens spent much of the early years at OIBR recruiting some of the top research stars across campus in social and behavioral sciences and bringing them together to discuss ideas.
“He was very selective,” said Steven Beach, Center for Family Research co-director and a former OIBR director. “One of the things that happened early on was Bill set the stage for people respecting the potential contributions of people outside of their own departments.”
The result has been an evolution of influence across the wider university as the institute’s reins passed through five different directors in its 50 years at UGA, incorporating centers of excellence, junior faculty development and grant stewardship along the way.
“Now it became a hub for interdisciplinary research,” said Tesser, professor emeritus of psychology. “It became a place where lots of people within the university found a home and put a stronger emphasis on research than even in their home departments. Funded research became much more important.”
Since Owens became founding director in 1970 and served through 1984, there have been four successors—Tesser (1984-94), Rex Forehand (1994-2003), Beach (2003-2013) and Eby (2013-present). Each has steered changes and expansion of OIBR services. The interdisciplinary research going on now crosses boundaries much further afield than 30 years ago. Eby, for instance, has helped expand the institute’s reach beyond the social and behavioral sciences, including into the biological sciences.
“We’ve really broadened our scope and have affiliates across many colleges and schools, including public health, public administration, international affairs, education and more,” Eby said. “Our reach has grown dramatically.”
The founding principle that has guided the institute since the beginning has never changed—a spirit of collaboration.
“You can look at UGA, and it feels like a big business with these silos,” said Forehand, former Regents’ Professor of psychology at UGA. “What OIBR did was bring people together. It launched collaboration but also individual careers. OIBR did things that departments didn’t or couldn’t do.”
Brody, who was appointed Regents’ Professor at UGA in 2004, has worked with all five OIBR directors in his 44 years at UGA. He believes the institute’s unique interdisciplinary framework is responsible for “making our science great.”
Centers of collaboration
Prime examples of OIBR’s collaborative mission are its centers of excellence.
The work coming out the Center for Family Research, established in 1985 as one of the first OIBR collaborative research centers, brings together scholars from diverse disciplines to explore innovative ways of examining family life.
Brody, Beach and 12 colleagues in CFR—including professor of human development and family science Steven Kogan, the 2020 William A. Owens Creative Research Award winner—explore why some Black children in the rural South are so resilient, despite the hurdles they encounter lacking resources and access to critical needs, like good schools, health care, transportation and employment opportunities.
Working with researchers from UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and College of Family and Consumer Sciences, CFR followed several thousand families, studying their development and resilience from childhood through young adult.
“We were able to identify clusters of parenting practices, extrafamilial family relationships and community protective factors that worked together despite these challenges to create really confident persons,” Brody said.
From their research, CFR created and tested prevention programs aimed at pre-adolescent, adolescent and young African American adults to foster positive development. The Strong African American Families programs were proven effective and are now implemented in communities around the nation, including in Georgia.
“These prevention programs for African American families are the only ones in the country that have been scientifically validated and that families around the nation are receiving,” Brody said. “Without the scientists and staff at CFR and the support that OIBR has always given us, it would never have happened.”
The SEER Center—Scientists Engaged in Educational Research—includes 40 faculty, postdocs and graduate students across UGA who perform research in collegiate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to help improve and transform how science is taught and learned in colleges and universities.
With members from UGA’s Franklin College; Mary Frances Early College of Education; College of Veterinary Medicine; College of Engineering; College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources; and the AU/UGA Medical Partnership, the cooperation reaches across all STEM education research projects.
SEER naturally found a home with OIBR thanks to its broad portfolio.
“The researchers who are part of OIBR align very well with those of us who do STEM education research,” said Paula Lemons, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, who serves as director of the SEER Center.
Lemons is also the principal investigator of the $3 million NSF-sponsored DeLTA (Department and Leadership Teams for Action) Project, which aims to transform STEM education at UGA at the institutional, departmental and course levels by addressing and improving teaching practices, support policies, and leadership development as well as diversity and inclusion.
With a core team of 12 faculty from SEER, Lemons said the DeLTA project will work with up to 100 faculty from all STEM departments at UGA by the time the project is completed in five-to-six years.
“At the course and instructor level we’re bringing in boots-on-the-ground faculty to what we call our instructional action team,” she said.
Critical faculty support
In 1990, the institute created a program to pair selected junior faculty with established mentors to learn how to write effective grant proposals. Former vice president for research Joe Key called establishing the mentoring program “one of the major achievements on this campus.”
“The first few years nobody was funded, and then all of a sudden it started to snowball,” Forehand said. “It was a realization that took several years to take root.”
Eby’s path to director included her own participation in the mentoring program after joining UGA’s industrial-organizational psychology faculty in 1996. The experience, she said, was “career-changing.” Beach, OIBR director at the time, ultimately talked her into succeeding him when he stepped down in 2013.
“There’s always been emphasis on developing talent within university ranks and helping junior faculty navigate what is often a very complex system without a lot of guidance,” Eby said. “One day they’re graduate students, and the next they’re faculty trying to figure it out on their own.”
Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, found success as one of the 114 faculty researchers to complete the mentoring and grant-writing program.
The effort helped her secure a five-year, $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop and implement a virtual reality fitness after-school program with the Metro Atlanta YMCA. Using Fitbits and kiosks, the technology integrates a virtual pet to motivate more active lifestyles in at-risk children. It involves colleagues from five different colleges—engineering, education, public health, family and consumer sciences, and journalism and mass communication—and is currently running in 20 Atlanta public schools.
“I came in with almost zero knowledge, and they basically turned a completely green person into someone funded with a $3.5 million grant. They had this entire package I was deeply impressed with: training programs, mentoring, pre- and post-award services,” said Ahn, the director of Games and Virtual Environments Lab at Grady. “If I had to do this alone, I just couldn’t do it. OIBR staff is helping me every step of the way.”
Over the last several decades, OIBR has provided what Eby calls “comprehensive, cradle-to-grave” grant support for faculty in social/behavioral sciences.
“It was something that was sorely missing across all the social and behavioral sciences; in retrospect it was such an astonishing gap,” Beach said. “OIBR has emerged as a foremost provider of those support services, and people really need that and appreciate it.”
As a service unit housed within the Office of Research, OIBR offers tailored pre-award application preparation assistance as well as specialized post-award grants management support from a dedicated staff.
“It’s incredibly important because it allows the faculty to focus on the science of the grant and not all of the administrative and bureaucratic details that are very overwhelming on large-scale interdisciplinary research projects,” Eby said.
Dorothy Carter, assistant professor in industrial-organizational psychology, calls OIBR’s pre- and post-award services “one of the best resources we have on UGA’s campus.”
“As academic researchers, we’re not exactly accountants,” Carter said. “I have grant funding from four different agencies—NASA, the Army, the National Science Foundation and NIH—and each has very different rules as far as budgeting, timing, expectations [and] distribution. For me, managing a grant would be a full-time job. Having OIBR staff navigating all those things allows the research personnel the time to do what we actually are hired to do—research.”
The ultimate measure of OIBR’s success, of course, is not the cumulative value of its grants over 50 years but the impact of the work generated by the researchers it has empowered.
That impact reaches far beyond campus and the state of Georgia. One of the biggest potential examples is the work in human trafficking conducted by David Okech, an associate professor in the School of Social Work.
Okech, a native of Kenya, received and directs the university’s first large grant from the U.S. Department of State to expand the UGA-based African Programming and Research Initiative to End Slavery, focused on measurably reducing human trafficking in Africa. The project involves people from the Franklin College and the College of Public Health with a total budget of more than $20 million from the U.S. Department of State.
“It’s a really important, complex issue, and he has amassed a massive project to try to alleviate human trafficking,” Eby said.
Okech says his affiliation with OIBR, and his experience participating in the institute’s Grantsmanship Development Program, including the mentoring he received from Steven Kogan, OIBR director of faculty development, provided a foundation for him to shift his research focus to this critical global issue.
“OIBR was very helpful in finding me the right persons who could strengthen my case for funding,” Okech said, “and allow me to do the research and science that is my main calling.”
Article written by: Scott Michaux
Source: UGA Research
Photography by: Amy Ware, Andrew Davis Tucker and Beth Chang